Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Fifty-First Word For Ice

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Saying what I need to say here is going to require some punctuation: ****.  Last time I needed that punctuation was after the Wild Ride through the Halloween Blizzard.  This one is a little different, mainly, because I put myself into this position.  And paid for it too.  There’s just no end to these depravities.

So, what is this about?  It’s about a ski trip to Stowe.  Stowe, Vermont.  Stowe, of the Fabled Front Four.  The Double Black Diamonds of Stowe are a thing to conjure with in ski areas located around the world.  To call them “terrifying” does them a disservice.  Terrifying doesn’t begin to cover it.

Perhaps the best way to convey the sense of the legendary Front Four is to say this:  Roy and I dined at the mountain lodge across the road from the base area that serves these runs.  We emerged from the restaurant  and I saw the brilliant headlights of the Stowe Crack Grooming Cats crawling the mountain face in the pitch dark.
“Roy,” I said. “Check it out! They’re grooming one of the Front Four.”
“Where?” he said.
“What?” I said. “Right in front of us, those are the headlights of the grooming cats.”
“Where,” he said again. “I don’t see any headlights.”
He paused, and looked up.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s a grooming cat? I thought it was a star.”

Yep, these runs are so steep.  How steep are they? They’re steep enough that a reasonable person watching them be groomed at night can mistake the grooming equipment for an astronomical body.

That’s STEEP.

Actually, as far as I can tell, the runs on this mountain are either

1. Suitable for the complete novice, with a slope so small you have to use your sticks to propel yourself along
2. Steep
3. Steeper
4. Steeper than steeper
5. Holy ***,  I’m gonna die
and
6. Gimme a break.  That’s not a really a run.  That’s just a gap in the trees where the water comes down when it rains on the mountain.

That’s Stowe, for you.  The infamous double-blacks are in categories 5 and 6.  Their intermediate terrain is all in category 2 and 3.

I had already decided that I wanted nothing to do with the Front Four, and, in fact, wanted nothing to do with any of the Stowe Black Runs.  I skied four mountains in a week, and I wasn’t anywhere near fresh enough to be thinking of facing down anything like that.  The blues, however, I knew I could do.

And, before we go any further, I did.  I did a bunch of the blues, and only hit the ground once, and there were Extenuating Circumstances for that, and I wasn’t actually moving at the time, which makes it not quite a fall.  But I did these blues.

Also, before we go any further, I have to be very honest.  Everyone I met, from fellow skiers with season passes to Stowe, to lifties, to the people at desks and shops and manning the bars, told me the same thing:  they said, firmly, that I am not seeing the mountain at its best.  Now, I know what it takes to make me say that about my home mountain.  The correct way to interpret that “not seeing” statement is as a brilliant piece of Yankee Tact, which means Massive Understatement.  So, I absolutely believe that I did not get a good representation of what it’s like to Ski Stowe.  It was also a comfort to me that the others also seemed to regard the conditions as being pretty bad.  And, also in their defense, the snow reporting there was completely honest.  They reported “machine groomed” which any New England skier understands immediately is short for “machine groomed frozen granular” which translates to “we have run the grooming cats over this iceberg and pulverized the top layer of ice so that you may be able to edge on it [this is a primary way of controlling speed and direction] but if you go too far with your edges, you’ll find that you are skiing on the ice from which the shavings were derived”.

It’s one of the many words New England skiers have for ice.

Fortunately, I’ve been skiing on ice and nothing else for most of the winter, and I had my Trusty Austrian Ice Skis in tow, so I knew I could take the blues.   And I did.

I have been all excited because I discovered a brand new type of ice.  This was ice that looked exactly liked the machined groomed frozen gran right next to it, even had stripes like corduroy does.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s possible to spray on corduroy like a person sprays on a tan, because not only was this stuff not corduroy, it wasn’t even textured.  It was a solid flat sheet of ice that looked like it had texture.  It was the strangest thing.  I didn’t immediately have the leisure to appreciate the wonder of discovering Foreign Ice on this mountain.  That’s because I was in the middle of a pretty aggressive turn when I moved from the ice that would support an aggressive turn onto the ice that would not.  This caused me to shoot forward, making a wholly unexpected traverse and head directly for the trees on the side of the run, while simultaneously sliding sideways down the pitch.

I executed a Plan Z that I did not even know I had until that moment, and managed to deflect my trajectory into a direction with, shall we say, better short-term prospects, and skied out of it.  As soon as I hit something soft, I started uttering some interjections.

****!

****!

What the ***ing **** was that ****ed up ***?!?!?! As I went down the hill below it.  What the **** just happened?

I could not  believe that it really was that invisible, or that hard, so I took that run again and stopped just above where I remembered the Foreign Ice being.  Sure enough.  It looked exactly like a groomed surface.  In fact, as I paused there to inspect it, I saw it nearly dump three other skiers who had the same misfortune as myself to be turning when we hit it.  You could see who had encountered this material before, because – to a person – they lined up above it, pointed their skis directly down the fall line, and straight-lined it – something that under normal circumstances, you never seen a safe and experienced skier doing.  No one bombs straight down a big pitch.  Always you are turning.  Always.  But not on this Alien Ice.  Worst possible thing to do on it.  Only way to do it safely is to bomb it.

As my net of experience expanded across the terrain, I encountered this substance in a couple of other places, but none offered the thrills of making a wrong turn – onto a run I had specifically marked out as To Be Avoided – and finding it there. Unfortunately, I had to ski into the run to discover my wrong turn, because this run was steep enough that it wasn’t easily visible from the top.  It would easily have been classed as a “black” (advanced/expert) slope at many of the other places I’ve skied just based on the pitch and width of the run alone.  It was, for example, the equal in pitch to any of the black runs I’d skied at Bretton Woods two days before, and it was half as wide as those were, which would have made it a double-black there.  Not that Bretton Woods is a useful point of comparison, since it’s known for being as easy as Stowe is for being challenging.  But still.  That was all on the pitch alone.

For me, the problem was not the pitch.  The problem was that fact that the entire run, wall-to-wall, was covered with moguls.  And these weren’t your every day ****y icy New England moguls with little piles of shaved snow on top, and deep icy gutters between.

No. These were MOGULS.  The usual New England bump, even black-diamond-quality bumps were, to these bumps, as a mosquito bite is to a festering boil.  These bumps were, I swear it, the size of Roy’s Honda Accord.    Not even the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, which would be the biggest bumps I’d seen up to this point.  These were not moguls.  This slope was covered with igloos that would accommodate a family of four, plus two grandparents, and a could of cousins.  Each.

And the entire thing was covered by the Foreign Ice.  The stuff that looked like normal snow or regular old hardpack, but was impossible to edge.  Not that you want to edge in bumps anyway, but neither do you want to shoot down them like a greased pig in a grain chute full of giant ball bearings.

When I marked this run as To Be Avoided, I did it because the snow report indicated bumps. But not marking of “bumps be here” would have ever led me to expect what I saw.

Unfortunately, when I made this dreadful discovery, I was stopped on top of a bump.  And in the process of turning around to bail the  **** out, I lost a pole directly into a little ravine.  And in my brief effort to catch it, I hit the ground, finding myself spread-eagled on my belly on top of a gigantic icy mogul the size of a family sedan.  Usually it would be very easy to get up from that position, you just put your skis into a wedge and push yourself up with your hands.

But that presumes that the wedge will put your edges efficiently into contact with the snow surface, and that they will grip and stop you moving while you get yourself sorted back out.

Unfortunately, I was on the Foreign Ice, the stuff that is impossible to get an edge on which meant that if I executed Plan A, I was going to find myself sliding backwards into this giant ****ing field of ****ing rock-hard ****moguls, the very place I was trying not to go when I lost my pole.

I lay there for a few minutes trying to figure out what to do.  Couldn’t wiggle around too much, not without dislodging myself from the top of the mogul and starting into the giant ****ing etc backwards and on my belly.

No, I realized, I had no option.  I was going to have to take my skis off, as I lay there on my belly.  And do it without coming off the bump.  I used my remaining pole to get one of my skis off, but – thanks to the contour – my remaining  binding was actually on the backside off the bump and not accessible with this pole.  So I lay there a few minutes more, thinking ***ing ****, I’m never going to be able to get off this ****ing bump.  I’m going to grow old and die here.

Fortunately, about that point a ski instructor with a couple of little kids came by and asked if I needed help.
I started laughing.  “I do, actually.  I lost my pole and I can’t get up.”

One of the kids said “I’ll get it!!” and skied into the ravine.  Had a bit of a challenge getting back out of the ravine due to the same phenomenon that had made it impossible for me to get up.  Meanwhile, the ski instructor blew my binding, I got the ski off, stood up (very carefully), thanked everyone profusely, and hiked back up to the turn that I’d missed.

I’ve definitely skied more terrifying things than the Stowe blues when they’re icy.  But not much more terrifying, and not without having it clearly labeled as an extreme run.

I am awestruck at the people who used to ski there when it opened: riding surface tows up the mountain, and plunging down it on skinny wooden skis with no metal edges held on by bindings made of a rubber strap with a spring tied to it.  And no helmet.  And leather boots, and tweed pants.  I guess they really did make ’em tougher back in the day, just like grandpa says.  In the meantime, ****.

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The Wild Life

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Roy and I just took a ski junket to Jackson, New Hampshire – a short hop away from Canada, and a shorter hop away from Maine.  Jackson is a classically charming New England village in the White Mountains, within spitting distance from Mount Washington and the Presidential Range.  The inns are fabulous, the downhill skiing is terrific – in that New England way – and the scenery is incomparable.

And wild.

Now, I’m no stranger to wildlife.  In Texas, where I come from, just about everything you see in Nature will attack you, if it’s not already doing so.  We have giant flying cockroaches that will dive-bomb you.  We have every kind of venomous snake on the planet.  We get scorpions in the plumbing on the outskirts of the city.  In the country, everyone has shotguns to deal with snakes that go after the mice that infest barns, and the odd coyote that will carry off the small pets of the house.  Even the plants are dangerous, with long sharp spines that are hard enough to puncture the sole of your Tevas.   The time I’ve spent in the Smoky Mountains gave me an appreciation of black bear, and why it’s important to make a racket when you hike in the woods even if you’d rather be silently appreciating the grandeur of Nature.  We get black bear in the town where I live, which has a good quantity of conservation area mixed in with the residential zones – every spring the paper runs articles on the Evils of Bird Feeders and the Need To Secure Trash Cans, and covers the inevitable story of how some bear cub got caught in a garage/on a mud porch/stuck in the back of a pickup or how someone saw a bear on the bike trail, with reminders about the city’s Leash Laws.

But these encounters are still fairly…innocuous.   After all, Massachusetts, despite the conservation land, is still a pretty densely populated state.

I forget how densely populated, until I visit a place like Jackson.  I still think of this as dense, with ski condos, inns, restaurants, and bars, but the truth is that these are islands of civilization surrounded by quite a lot of wilderness.

Roy woke me at 1am, as I slept in a soft bed under a thick pillowy comforter.
“PSSSST.” he said.
“huh?” I said.
“WAKE UP” he hissed.
Then I came awake with all the reflexes of the childless person who is wholly unaccustomed to unexpected sleep disturbances.
“WHAT?!!?”
“Shhh,” he said. “Listen.”

I listened.

And in the distance, but not far enough off in the distance, I could hear it clearly.  It sounded like belling hounds, or barking zebras.  Coyotes.  A whole pack of them.  And they were hunting.

They weren’t stalking, they weren’t concerned with silence.  They were concerned only with communicating to each other over distance in what sounded like a high-speed chase.  This wasn’t a house cat meeting its doom, it was something big, fast, and scared, likely a deer.  The hunting cries echoed through the woods and off the mountains, until suddenly they fell silent.

My first thought was “wow, that was cool.”

But then I thought how different it was to experience this from a comfortable bed in a room with a fireplace than it would have been to experience it from, say, a tent.  Or a cabin without a lock on the door.   And then, some tiny ancient and very primitive piece of my brain started to fire, and I understood, suddenly, how terrifying the experience of the early settlers must have been.  I understood better why Huey spooks as he does.

It was cool, yes, but it was also creepy as hell.

There’s blood on the snow this morning, and I’m just grateful it isn’t mine.

Ripping

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I rose this morning to an air temperature of zero Fahrenheit, the temperature at which the hairs in your nose will freeze and break off, if you use your nose to breathe.  This is one of the strangest feelings in the world: it’s like every single tiny little hair in your nose meets that arctic air, reels backwards in fear, and curls up into a tiny, solitary little individual ball of terror.  Right there inside your nostrils.  The first time this happened to me, in Wisconsin in January, they warned me: when you get that sensation do not inhale.  I didn’t believe them when they told me that it was my nose hairs freezing.  As a Texan, I am routinely suspected of “telling tall tales” (which are nothing but the unvarnished truth) but to my ears, the Story of the Frozen Nose Hairs was pure bunk.  I was certain they were mocking me as a rube, in the same way that kids from New York City get sent on “snipe hunts” at camp.

And I maintained that belief until I inhaled and all those wretched, broken, frozen nose hairs shot straight up into my sinuses and started really wreaking havoc.  Five minutes later I was able to finish blowing my nose, and, by golly, there they were on the kleenex:  frozen nose hairs.    Now I know.  And I can always tell when the mercury is at zero, because even at one degree, my nose hairs don’t ball up and fall off.  Only at zero and below.  I’m sort of a Human Thermometer that way.

Now, thanks to the bloody Polar Vortex, I lost my nose hairs for the season weeks ago, right before the mountain started on that ghastly thaw/rain/melt/freeze cycles with the four (4) hideous unseasonable rainstorms in a row.  Fortunately, for a full week now, the snowmaking temperatures have been back, and the hill is roughly where it should be at this time of the season.  I could do with some plentiful snow from the sky but I’m not going to complain about the conditions we’re having right now.

So what does a New England Skier say when they walk outside in a valley town well south of the ski hill, and it’s only zero there, and the red stripe on the bottom of the TV channel is blaring the information that wind chills – in town – are well into the Super Ultra Frostbite Risk Zone?  And the mountain expect the mercury to max at 4-below at the summit, and around 5-above at the base?

It depends.  If that skier is a simple, rational individual, able to maintain a take-it-or-leave it attitude about skiing, they turn around, go back to bed, maybe pile on an extra blanket, and return to sleep.

If that skier is me, then they turn around, dig out the Expedition Weight base layers, start stacking clothes and opening the chemical hand-warmer packets, and make for the hill.

The good news is that the ultra-chilly temperatures ensured that virtually all of the skiers on the hill today were hard. core.  I mean, we’re talking a day where your breath condenses on the balaclava and makes the face mask wet through by the time you finish a run, and by the time you ski off the chair, the balaclava is frozen solid so that you can thump it by flicking it with a thumbnail.  These are hard. core. ski conditions, not for the faint of heart, but no deterrent at all to the hard. core. skier who possesses the requisite soft goods.  Soft goods are clothing, for you non-skiers out there.

The other good news is that the recent snowmaking blizzards have laid down a pretty solid layer of white on many of the runs – no thin spots or waterbars or holes, rocks, and other funny stuff.  And that these temps have dried that snow right on out, letting it pack down pretty solidly into one of the versions of New England Ice known as hard-pack.  And the groomers chew up the top layer into little rails of corduroy, all of which means that we have a surface over the entire mountain that consists of firm, dry, fast hard snow that you can get an edge into.  If you have the right skis, that is.  I wouldn’t want to be riding my midfat twin-tips over this stuff, that’s for sure.  But because I am a dyed-in-the-wool native New England Skier (not a Native New Englander) I own Ice Skis.  Yep.  New England skiers better have at least one pair of skis in the quiver – and if they don’t have a quiver, the only pair of skis they own – that is made for skiing on ice.

Ski The East: Born From Ice. Says it all, really. I have a hoodie with this design on it. Roy gave it to me, because he understands about skiing on ice.

 

So, the good news is that the surface was fast and smooth and pretty much even.  This is Rock Star Snow.  Not Hero Snow, it’s not the surface to get experimental with.  Not the surface for learning aerial tricks, and taking jumps.  What it is, is the surface for ripping.

The even better news is that I have just the pair of skis for all of this.  I bought them back in November.  They’re Volkls, which in my opinion, makes the best Ice Skis around.  Mine are RTM 84s, a nice wide uber-solid high-performance vehicle of a ski.  They remind me of my sports car, with its six-speed manual short-throw transmission and huge engine.  It took me a week before I wasn’t killing my engine in first gear.  This is not a car to go slow in.  It is, however, a car to monitor very carefully because it’s extremely easy to go very fast in.  And to go very fast without noticing.  Roy always has to drive my car with the cruise control on, because if he doesn’t, it’s only two or three minutes before we become bait for the Staties.  My car wails.  So do my skis.

Now, I used to be terrified of speed on skis.  I used to be the slowest person on the run, including on the green run.  I still remember the day that I actually passed someone else on a run.  I was thrilled because it meant that I was no longer the slowest person on the run.  It’s been a while since I was the slowest person on the run, but it wasn’t until this year that I Came To Terms with speed.

In retrospect, I understand that the biggest part of my Speed Problem was that I was on skis that were too short.  You wouldn’t think that having short skis would be a problem with speed, but it is.  Another part of the problem was that I wasn’t a good enough skier to take advantage of speed.  I was no slouch, mind you, but I was definitely more concerned with stopping and slowing down than I was with going fast.  I was extremely concerned about stopping and slowing down on ice.  I would have said, 18 months ago, that I hated skiing on ice.  I had great ice skis, with awesome hard snow grip, but they were short enough that if I poured on any juice, they’d get all squirrely under my feet.  Nothing to give a person an aversion for skiing fast on ice like a pair of skis that gets all woobly when you do it.

Now? I have skis that are the right length, and I’m still concerned with maintaining control at all times (and do)…but at this point, my concern with ice is limited to things like cursing the ice for stripping the wax off my bases and chewing up my edges.  I had one of those Epiphany Moments on Monday, before the mountain operations had gotten more than a start on resurrecting the conditions. I took a run that has a challenging little drop and a bunch of rollers.  It’s a little bit off the beaten track, so it doesn’t get crowded, which – combined with the fun drop and the rollers – makes it one of my favorite runs on the hill.  When conditions are agreeable I’ve been known to spend a few hours just doing laps on this run, I like it that much.  On Monday, it was my own private White Ribbon of Death…and I was totally unfazed.  I skied out onto it, and found myself thinking “ah, hardpack.”  (one type of New England Ice). Back in the day, I would have stopped, or at least braked, and fussed about skiing out onto an obviously icy run.  With a steep little drop and rollers.  Not now.  Before I finished the thought about the hardpack, I was approaching the drop, the top of which was covered with boilerplate – another, uglier type of New England Ice – and I sighed.  I sighed again when I dropped in and discovered that the backside of the drop was scattered sheets of blue ice (the ugliest type of New England Ice) but again, before I finished the thought “oh, that’s nasty” I was into the rollers, which were also pretty icy.  The important part is that I didn’t drop my rhythm, I didn’t slow down, I just skied that shit.

I’m not afraid of ice any more.  I’m born from the stuff.  I own it.

I got it again this morning, when I was taking a lift ride over a short, but pretty steep black diamond.  US ski runs are rated green (easiest), blue (intermediate), black (difficult), and double-black (experts only, and even then it might get hairy). I looked down off the lift at this run, which is usually bumped up (with moguls, which I hate, because here they are enormous and rock hard, like skiing a field of igloos).  Today it was groomed.  I regarded it for a while, considered that there was enough loose stuff to be edge-able, and thought “I can take that.”

And I did.  I skied off the lift, hiked up a little hill to the drop-in zone of the run – which you couldn’t see at all, owing to steepness – and while some primitive part of my brain was saying “NO WAY” the rest of it was going “Pshaw.”  I knew I could do it, you see.  I didn’t think I could do it.  I knew I could.  And so it was.  I made a few turns, and yeah, it was a little steep, and the surface was a little crisp, but I was entirely up to it.  In fact, I found myself thinking “Are you serious?  Is that all?  This is…not quite easy, but certainly not difficult.

And then I knew.  I’m not afraid of steeps any more.

In fact, I did that run three times.  My skis were loving it.  More! More! they seemed to say.  More!

So I gave them more.  I turned down the fall line, and I opened up the throttle, and before I knew it, I was not just not the slowest person on the runs, I was the fastest.  Thanks to the super-cold temps keeping all the rookies in, the mountain was pretty empty, and the people who were out on it were people who knew what they were doing.  Which means I could really open it up.  And every gout of speed I delivered, my skis just said More! More! More!

My skis hate going slow.  They’ll do it, but they bicker nonstop when I make ’em.  They were born for speed, and don’t I know it.

I remember on one run – it was empty, the surface was in great shape, and I blasted into the run like I’d been shot out of a rocket launcher, and tore it up all the way to the base, picking the most aggressive lines, the biggest drops, and carving it up hard.  I felt like I was going to leave a sonic boom in my wake.  I felt like I should have a Sound Effect: that noise that the Road Runner makes when he really pours on the speed, the one that sounds like a ricochet.  Pssschhooowngg!!

And now I know.  I’m not afraid of speed any more.

The only downside of days like today is having the ski hill to myself.  Next time I go, there will be other people on the runs, and I won’t be able to rip it out, and I will have to ski slowly.  I get spoiled.

Any Time, Now…

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Well, here we are in mid-January.  Santa left us all big lumps of coal in the stocking.  Not the nice kind of coal, either.  Christmas week gave us the last decent weather we’ve known all season: every since, we – like everyone else on this depressing planet – has been contending with one psychotic weather freak after another.  I feel that lately, here, it’s either 45 and pouring rain (on top of ice) or it’s -10 and blasting wind.  We’ve had, maybe, 3 or 4 decent days for skiing in the last three weeks.

I don’t say we’ve had 3 or 4 days of skiing.  We’ve had plenty of skiing, it’s just been consistently crappy skiing.  Ice, mainly.  Or slush.  Or – as on Monday – ice and slush at the same time.  The temp soars to absurd heights while the skies rain tears of misery, and the mountain melts.  Then the temp, in a sadly bipolar state, crashes and freezes the melt, thus turning the mountain into an ice cube.  I observed to someone the other day that to get New England “Powder” you let the hill melt, then freeze it, and let the grooming cats crawl all over the iceberg for three days after which you get two inches of finely pulverized ice chips, and there you have it:  powder.  Or powder-ish.  Or powdery.  Powdery ice, that is.  One is either scraping down the hill on metal edges, or skidding down the hill across ice chunks that are as sharp as gravel.  Or both.  I’ve taken five gouges to the base of my new skis from the snow.  Or snow-ish.  Snow wears the wax off your skis, but that’s supposed to happen because the wax is melting and contributing to a nice slippery sensation, not because the snow is abrading the bases like a brillo pad.

Sorry, do I sound bitter?  Must just be irritability from the constant deafening racket of my skis scraping down the hill.  Perhaps I should invest in ear protection.

The next person who recites that hairy old chestnut “if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes” is going to get a ski pole where the sun don’t shine.  That ancient whisker isn’t supposed to reflect a literal truth.  And it doesn’t matter anyway – what we’ve had going on is just flat-out depressing.  The ski hills are taking a bigger beating this year than any year I’ve seen before, and that includes the occupant of the Number One Spot in the Ski Season Hall of Shame: 2011-2012.  The year when the season ended before St. Patrick’s Day, cut short by a full 25%.  Usually, when someone utters the words 2011-12 they do it in sepulchral tones, and toss salt, spit, and make a magic sign with their fingers to ward off the Evil Eye.  It was that bad.  This is shaping up to be worse.  I don’t believe my ski hill has been able to get 100% open even one day this whole season.  I’m getting savagely bored with the White Ribbon of Death.

Please.  No more insane fits of temper.  No more rain.  No more ice.  And – really – no more rain on top of ice.  That’s the worst.  Do not melt my ski hill again.  Stay cold for long enough to repair the damage.

And please, really, please: Let it SNOW.